In a way, the story of the aliens is told through Doctor Nino Makhviladze, and her story is told through Harlan. Are these characters (or characters in your stories in general) based on anyone in particular?
On the one hand, I can’t really think of a time when I’ve based a character on one particular person. On the other hand, I can’t think of a time when I haven’t based a character at least in part on people that I know in real life, or on some aspect of my own personality.
I think I’m never very conscious about who I base a character on. The characters mostly emerge from the story. The details of their backgrounds and some of their tendencies, though, are drawn from life. In that way, Nino Makhviladze is a condensation of a number of Georgian women that I have known professionally and greatly respected (mostly journalists), a Georgian geneticist that is a friend of the family, and aspects of my own personality and attitudes toward the world. I use the word condensation in the psychoanalytic sense: I think characters in my fiction sort of work like the people in dreams: They may have some of the tendencies of one person, dress or act like another, have the background of a third, but in the end they are all and none of those people.
As for Harlan—I can’t think of anyone in particular Harlan is based on. Superficially, he’s got some of the characteristics of a few friends of mine. But again, there are probably ten or twelve people in there, and a lot of myself as well.
Although the story focuses on strange happenings, it has, at heart, a concern with the impact of humans on the planet. Because the narrative focuses on the happenings, the story doesn’t read as preachy. But it does have a message, relayed through the calm (though sometimes annoyed), rational perspective of Nino. Is it important for fiction to carry some sort of message? Is it inevitable? Or can a story just be a fun story?
I would never tell another writer what to do. People are free to write whatever they want: that’s really the beauty of art. People do, and can, and should, write fun stories about nothing at all. But for me, I think a lot of the motivation for my writing is tied up in my thinking about and considering problems in the world or thinking through an element of science or philosophy that interests me. I don’t mean necessarily suggesting solutions to them, but turning them over in my mind. That’s just the way my mind works, and it’s where my inspiration comes from.
I guess in a way I don’t think “The Swallows of the Storm” has a message, or maybe more specifically I don’t think it has one message, although I agree that Nino has an opinion about things. I think stories are more complex than that. They are not exactly reducible to didactic messages. Or, they shouldn’t be. They are open, in that way, to interpretation. I really believe in Keats’ theory of negative capability: the idea that art should be content with mystery and unanswered questions. Not every event needs a direct explanation.
But on the other hand, stories are also interpreted by readers. If you think the story has a message, it does have one—because that is what you got out of it. The reader is a part of the process as much as the writer is.
How did this story happen for you? What was the inspiration and how did it develop?
Such a hard question for me. I really ruminate for a long time on ideas before I ever start writing a story, and it’s never just one idea that makes a story—it’s more like two or three or nine that come together—things that have been bouncing around in my head for a really long time, in the background. Later it’s often hard for me to say where the ideas got started.
I know that one of the threads of this story was from a podcast I was listening to about how, if we ever encountered alien life, it was likely to be some kind of intelligent artifact left behind from a race that is itself long gone. I also know that my Georgian geneticist friend’s work on gathering shepherd dog DNA was part of the inspiration. And a lot of my reading I had been doing in biosemiotics, especially the idea in biosemiotics from Jesper Hoffmeyer of code-duality: the idea that life is a recursive exchange of messages between analog codes (animals reacting with each other in ecological space) and digital codes (genomes) that are passively carried forward in time from generation to generation. Both are necessary for survival—what Hoffmeyer calls semiotic survival. So that’s all in there, in some sort of amalgam that evolved over time in the back of my brain while I was washing dishes . . .
I feel like there is a bit of poking fun at bureaucracy going on. Perhaps not on the level of Brazil (the movie), but the good doctor eventually leaves the government for private money so she can get more done, and she comments here and there about the slowness/inefficiency of the bureaucracy—to appreciative laughter. Does that sound right? Was that intentional?
It was. There is a lot of poking fun at bureaucracy, for sure. I live and breathe bureaucracy in my day job, and of course it can get frustrating, and we all make fun of it. But I also just wanted to be realistic about how things work: Government agencies move slowly and with caution. They are institutions with long traditions, regulations, and rules. That’s a reality of their structure, and it’s built in there for good reason, quite often.
Dr. Makhviladze is irritated by the slowness, and contemptuous of it, but I don’t always think it’s a positive side of her character, either. I wanted there to be a realism to her impatience with the apparatus she is working in, a verisimilitude. Bureaucracy is, after all, very frustrating at times. But it can also be a bulwark against theft, favoritism, and corruption. Going private is easier for Dr. Makhviladze, but I certainly wouldn’t want that to be read as some kind of libertarian critique: There are enormous dangers to privatization as well, and to the arbitrary decision-making private wealth allows. It just works out in her favor, in this particular case.
There’s a hard SF element to the story, including scientific details and theories about the devices. I might even say that aspects of the presentation of scientific process is, in a way, hard SF. At the same time, there’s this kind of poignant ending, set up with an almost sneaky through line with Harlan and his feelings for the doctor, which gives the story a really nice balance. Many writers would have just made this a hard SF story and not had this very grounding, very human, very real relationship aspect. Other writers would have dug into that relationship and made it central. Can you talk a little bit about your decisions with their relationship, and about striking this balance?
Thank you—I’m glad that you found the relationship between Harlan and Dr. Makhviladze real, and that you liked that balance between hard SF and character—that it worked for you.
I’m a perfectionist in my work. I demand a lot of myself, because I want to write the stories I would want to read. And when I read, I want everything about a story to feel real. Everything. So that’s my goal as a writer. I want to create worlds my readers can enter into completely and believe in fully while they are inside them. That means I want to get everything right: from the science I am exploring to the human relationships. I feel like I can’t neglect any aspect in favor of another.
I wanted the relationship between Harlan and Dr. Makhviladze to feel real, so it makes me happy that it felt that way to an experienced reader and reviewer like you. I also wanted to make a statement with this relationship: there are many, many ways to love a person, and many kinds of intense relationships possible that do not fall within narrow definitions, but are fulfilling.
You actually write quite a bit of hard SF (among other things). Did you do a lot of research for this piece to get the scientific ideas right, or to ground them in current theories? Were there elements that you originally wanted to add but couldn’t make them fit?
I usually don’t start with a story idea and then do the research. It’s almost always the other way around—the stories emerge out of my digging into a topic and doing the research due to my own personal interest. As I was saying before, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in biosemiotics lately, simply because I am fascinated with it as an emerging scientific field. And more than one story has come out of that reading: Other stories that I’ve written that have come out of that research into biosemiotics are “Albedo Season,” which was in the May 2020 Clarkesworld, and “Eyes of the Forest” which was in the May/June issue of F&SF. It’s informed elements of other work as well: I really think it has enriched everything I have written, but these three stories relate to it directly.
Once I start writing a story, though, it becomes clear that there are other elements that need to be added or fleshed out, and which demand further research. That’s a great part of writing: getting to do the research. I love research—it’s an opportunity for me to learn about new and unexpected things, it helps me feed my pretty much unlimited curiosity, and it quite often leads to new ideas for other stories.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this story?
In general, I’d like my readers to know that I am always thinking of them. William Sloane, who wrote the amazing To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water and was a brilliant editor and publisher as well, said in his book The Craft of Writing that “the relationship of writing is a one-to-one relationship. There is the writer and there is the reader. One of each.” That thought lies at the core of everything I write. I view it as a partnership, and I respect the time and the effort they put into it. It inspires me to work hard, and hopefully be worthy of their time.
In our last spotlight, for “The Death of Fire Station 10”, I asked you if your work often deals with specific themes or if your stories have some kind of style in common. After reading these two pieces, I want to say that your fiction tends to relate whatever the “idea” is to people in some significant way; and that relationships between characters are important to your narratives. What do you think?
I think that’s true. I’m interested in philosophical ideas, and science, and using those things to speculate about what might be, or could have been, or about how what is happening now could be different. But at the core of it, I am interested in what it is to be human. There is so much we don’t understand at all about ourselves—even about something as simple as what it is to be a self, an individual, an entity on this planet relating to other humans, to our environment. Why am I me, and aware of being myself? How does that work? How did this thing called life, and then this even more complex thing called consciousness, emerge from inert matter? I’m continually aware of the extraordinary wonder of that, and of how amazing it is to be here at all. And I believe that relationships—the way we treat one another—are the most meaningful part of living.
Communication is at the heart of it all. So all of my stories are, at the core, about the conscious being and their communication with other conscious beings. And the stories are written, after all, because I am a conscious being seeking communication with other conscious beings. I think it’s easy to forget that strangeness at the core of life, but it’s always there, underneath the surface of the day-to-day—that brute fact of being alive among others who are alive. Maybe if we thought about it more, we would be better to one another.
Given your response last time, I won’t ask what you’re working on now! But I’ll ask for a sort of update: I know folks can check our your website to see what you have out and what’s coming out. Are there any pieces that are particularly special to you, or about which you are especially excited to see come out?
I’m really looking forward to seeing “Outside of Omaha” come out in Lightspeed’s sister magazine Nightmare—it’s one of the uncannier short stories I’ve produced. As of this interview’s publication, in July, my story “Father” is out in Asimov’s, and I personally think that story is one of the best things I have written. And my first novella, “A Rocket for Dimitrios” will also appear in Asimov’s, likely sometime in 2021. I’m thankful for all those opportunities for my work to be read.
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